online and distance education

The shock of dealing with Covid-19 has made teachers even stronger and better at their craft

Cast your mind back to the end of the first school term for 2020: Australian states and territories were rapidly moving into lockdown because of COVID-19. Political leaders were signaling – often using mixed signals – the likelihood and need to close schools and transition to distance learning. Here in New South Wales schools switched to distance learning for about six weeks, forcing teachers to adapt their programs very rapidly to support students and their parents with learning from home.

Currently around Australia we now have the whole range from fully face-to -face schooling, to partially remote learning, to fully (with some essential worker exceptions) remote learning. Random schools are thrown into immediate lockdown whenever a teacher or student tests positive to the viral infection. Teachers pivot their programs very rapidly between the different ways of delivery depending on the advice from health officials to their education authorities.

My doctoral research explores the way policy is enacted in teacher practice, and I seem to have landed in the middle of a system where policy has flown into flux.

My fieldwork actually started in the midst of one crisis – the Black Summer bushfires – and ended during another – COVID-19. I was fortunately able to modify the shape of my research to allow for interviews with teachers to find out how they experienced the rapidly changing work environment during the virus response.

I’m sure some of the findings are familiar to many teachers and researchers out there, and they aren’t specific to schools. For many people, the switch to working from home was sudden and required quick thinking and adaptation.

The teachers who participated in my research reported a number of interesting, and not all negative, experiences.

Workload increased dramatically

Teachers already faced significant workload demands going into the crisis, an issue plainly described in a partnership study between the NSW Teachers Federation and the University of Sydney. The teachers I interviewed explained how the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated this big time.

Teachers spend a huge amount of time planning and programming a school term, and much of that planning is premised on the physical environment in which they work. Educators take for granted the material contexts of their work – it helps them to improvise when necessary, to draw on a repertoire of skills and capabilities built up through experience.

In the Sydney school where I did my research the staff made a very rapid shift to online learning. This led to late nights preparing lessons, in some cases over-planning work for students in order to compensate for the lack of face-to-face interaction.

Some students felt more comfortable online

A number of teachers reported some students coming out of their shells in the online space. Otherwise shy students felt more empowered to contribute to lessons. Students with strong digital literacy skills were able to support teachers and fellow students in creating dynamic and interesting contributions to online learning.

While there has rightly been some attention paid to students who missed out because of inequitable access, there are also lessons that can be learned about engaging students who are less confident about speaking up in front of a classroom of peers. The digital world is here to stay: being confident learners in digital communities is an important life skill, virus or not.

Professional communities were more important than ever

The staff at the school scheduled an impromptu staff development day focused entirely on delivering learning remotely. Colleagues ran sessions on platforms like Zoom and Microsoft Teams. Faculty members headed to different classrooms to practice running Zoom lessons with each other. The New South Wales Department of Education also facilitated a ‘virtual staff room’ on Teams, and many teachers reported the value in sharing ideas with their colleagues both within the school and further afield.

When I spoke with the Deputy Principal of this school, he suggested that their quick response to COVID-19 was possible because of the school’s proactive approach to professional learning. The school saw the Professional Development Planning (PDP) process not as a ‘tick-the-box’ exercise, but rather a way to learn about the strengths and opportunities facing the school. He explained:

“What professional learning is about is foreseeing what obstacles might lie ahead, so that you can be properly prepared for when they do happen and you couldn’t get a better case in point than COVID.”

A year-round professional learning calendar helps staff at this school see the connection between their own Professional Development Planning and the whole school plan. Qualitative analysis of Professional Development Planning goals and professional learning needs helps inform the school planning process. And the teachers I interviewed were consistently engaged in improving their classroom practice.

Teachers felt their practice had improved because of the crisis

Each teacher I spoke with said that they had learned something during the crisis and that their practice going forward would improve as a result, sentiment echoed in a survey conducted by researchers Rachel Wilson and William Mude. This included their ability to incorporate Information and Communication Technology (ICT) into their lessons, the different ways they can engage with their students, and their professional knowledge in the domain of online teaching and learning. As one teacher explained:

“I think there will be good development in our skills that will make us better teachers going forward. It’s been a baptism of fire, but I think we’ll all be better practitioners and have a wider repertoire of skills.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has turned a lot of things on their heads: it is a black swan event, something gigantic and unexpected that shifts the way we understand the world. Nassim Taleb, who wrote the book, The Black Swan, followed that with another book, Antifragile. He explains that the opposite of fragility is not resilience, but antifragility: where something responds to a shock by getting stronger.

The teachers I worked with pre and post COVID-19 (as far as we can say that we are ‘post’ this virus) are a perfect example of antifragility. So far, 2020 has delivered some of the biggest shocks imaginable. And out of it the teachers in my study have become even better at their craft thanks to the strength of their professional communities and their school’s meaningful approach to professional learning.

Pat Norman is a doctoral candidate at the University of Sydney, looking at the way politics and political events shape the rationalities of policy and practice. He is particularly interested in the way neoliberalism and globalisation impact professional work. His current research in schools looks at the way teachers experience and enact policy, and how an understanding of good practice is produced in real-world contexts. He tweets as @pat_norman.

Offline distance education (already happening all around Australia) can be highly successful

As many of our children continue with their online learning, there is concern that those with limited access to technology will be disadvantaged. Access to online technology is indeed important, however Australia has been schooling children through distance education long before online connectivity was an option. As distance education teachers, we can reassure concerned families, and schools new to distance education, that offline learning can be very successful. In fact some of the best learning occurs in the offline component of distance education.

Getting the offline work out to students, given the sudden transition we are all experiencing, might be a logistical problem to some schools at the moment. However, with every passing day our schools are finding new solutions. In NSW schools are lending computers to students who don’t have them, other schools are arranging mail outs, or delivering paper copies of work and others are sending out USB drives with work uploaded. 

What is offline distance education?

Distance education schools allow children who cannot attend a face-to-face school to stay in their own home while working with a teacher who is located at a physical school elsewhere. Students in these schools communicate with their teacher by post, telephone, and online platforms, and the teacher sends them lessons to complete each week with the assistance of a supervisor, who is usually a parent. This is similar to what happening right now in most of our schools.

While teachers communicate regularly with their students, the majority of learning in distance education schools is completed offline, with students and home supervisors using lesson guides sent by teachers. In the younger years of schooling teachers send scripted lessons so that supervisors can read these to their students.

In the higher years of schooling the students work more independently, relying less on the supervisor. It is important to note that like many parents at the moment, these supervisors are un-trained educators, and they are also managing day-to-day work, life, and childcare responsibilities.

One of the benefits of distance education is the valuable and productive collaboration it encourages between parent supervisors and teachers.

Our research – what works in offline distance education

Our research explored the experiences of parent supervisors of primary school

distance education students. We found the opportunities distance education can bring to schooling are important and should be part of the discussions we have when talking about distance education.

Instead of looking at what students are missing out on, we need to flip the conversation and look at what these children now have access to.

Although distance education schools are usually expected to operate as much like face-to-face schools as possible, supervisors report that the best results occur when they are flexible and make the most of incidental learning opportunities. Children are still able to learn the concepts intended in the lessons set by the teachers, but the supervisors adapt the lessons to meet the students’ contextual needs, building on their life experiences, and fitting in with their families’ life.

For example, one family described how they knew one of the lessons they would need to do involved teaching their children to count, so instead of doing it between 9-3 in the schoolroom they taught their children to count while mustering cattle. Another described teaching her children mathematical concepts while doing housework. In these examples, school and home became integrated, and learning became a part of day to day life of the children. The environment students had access to became a learning advantage, not a disadvantage.

Learning to count while mustering cattle is certainly not the way a face-to-face classroom would normally operate. It is teaching in a manner that is adaptive and responsive to the different needs of students and their families. But the outcome is the same, that is, the children now know how to count.

Those supervisors who reported trying to ‘do’ schooling in a manner similar to face-to-face school experienced problems. It was difficult to organise their children’s schooling between 9-3, around all the other expectations of working on remote properties. Supervisors were then finding they needed to make a choice between their farm/business, or their children’s education, causing large amounts of stress for them. Parents would also describe how their children struggled with the high volume of sedate work, and with content that did not relate to their children’s life experiences at all. The parents reported how their children would then become disheartened and disengage with school because they felt schooling didn’t value or understand their life experiences, and learning became a struggle because they didn’t understand the examples used.

What does this mean for the schooling in the current climate?

In the current circumstance, with schooling in Australia rapidly shifting to learning at home, the insights of distance education suggest that:

  1. The intended outcome of the lesson should be clear to supervisors – that way parents can take incidental opportunities to help their children learn.
  2. We need to think of education more broadly than formal face-to-face schooling.
  3. Parents can restructure the day to fit the child’s rhythm.
  4. We need to make sure we have breaks as well. Pick the opportunities to ‘teach’ and make other times just family time.

While the distance education mode of schooling was at times challenging to the supervisors in our study , they all reported they would choose this mode of schooling over any other option due to the benefits it provided.

Students don’t need to have access to all the things they did in face-to-face schools because of the wide-range of rich educational opportunities in their homes. We can choose to now rethink how we see schooling and embrace the experiences around us. 

Face-to-face schooling in a classroom with a teacher from 9-3 doesn’t work for some children, and it shouldn’t have to. Distance education is a key example of this. It is already working for thousands of students every year.

Yes indeed, as many parents are now finding out, supporting older children to learn some specialist subjects can be daunting. But it’s no less daunting than, with the support and guidance of a teacher who is physically somewhere else, teaching a pre-literate or pre-numerate child to read and count. Parents do this every day in remote areas across Australia.

Philip Roberts is an Associate Professor (Curriculum Inquiry / Rural Education) at the University of Canberra and Research Leader of the Rural Education and Communities Research Group and ARC DECRA fellow at the University of Canberra, where he convenes units across the fields of Educational Sociology and Curriculum Inquiry. His major ongoing research focuses on place, the sustainability of rural communities, and the interests of the least powerful in our society. Philip’s work is situated within rural sociology, the sociology of knowledge, educational sociology and social justice and is informed by the spatial turn in social theory and sustainability.  He leads the  University of Canberra’s Rural Education & Communities Research Group. Philip is on Twitter @DrPhilRob

Natalie Downes is a research assistant  in the Rural Education & Communities Research Group in the Faculty of Education, University of Canberra. Her research interests include rural distance education, rural-regional sustainability and the ethical working impact of working with rural people and communities. Natalie also works with the University of Canberra Widening Participation unit assisting with program evaluation and reporting and has previously worked as a Research Officer at the university. She has been an executive member of the Society of the Provision of Education in Rural Australia and editor of the Board of the International Journal of Rural Education. She has worked on projects with the Rural Education Research Student’ Network which focuses on supporting students, early career researchers and community members interested in rural education. Natalie is on Twitter @NatDownes10

We would like to acknowledge the knowledge and experiences shared with us by teachers and parents for whom this mode of learning is the day to day norm